- What is it?
Synthetic phonics is an approach to teaching reading which seeks to consolidate letter sounds first, before blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words.
s (as in ‘sun’)
mm (as in ‘comma’)
ai (as in ‘brain’)
rh (as in ‘rhyme’)
dge (as in ‘bridge’)
eigh (as in ‘weigh’)
ough (as in ‘dough’)
- What are the potential benefits?
a) This method demands explicit, discrete teaching of each individual sound within the English alphabetic code; not just the 26 letters, but the 45(ish) sounds – (additions include extras such as: oi, or, er) and 150+ spellings (e.g. r, rr, rh, wr). Synthetic Phonics provides a comprehensive toolkit for readers of all abilities, to be able to decode unfamiliar words rather than trying to teach endless individual words or to pick up clues around the word, which can often lead to multiple errors or guessing attempts.
b) EAL students often show rapid improvement through this approach, and therefore unlock access to the rest of the curriculum. Since EAL is an entirely different ballgame to SEN, it’s no surprise that these pupils make obvious gains very quickly once they’ve grasped the core patterns of the English language.
c) In comparison to its shifty cousin, ‘analytic phonics’, this approach does not rely on a learner being able to understand the context of the sentence it resides in, in order to decode (read) the word itself.
- What are the potential drawbacks?
a) Some fail to acknowledge the necessary bridge between teaching the sounds and reading fluently. Unless you commit to modelling how to blend sounds within a word, learners will take much longer to read with increased fluency. Demonstrating how to blend sounds, e.g. in ‘b-r-i-dge’ and ‘ch-oi-ce’, will develop stronger readers.
b) Our beautifully rich English language is bittersweet. We’ve conquered, stolen and borrowed so many words from so many places, cultures and eras that our alphabetic code is now a picture of perfectly ordered chaos.
What this means in reality is that spelling feels impossibly difficult for weaker readers. While synthetic phonics has done wonders for reading in KS1&2, unless teachers are persisting to teach spellings explicitly and frequently, learners will employ their decoding knowledge to attempt encoding (spelling) words. It feels comfortable to the novice writer To do so but, until they’ve had repeated exposure to high frequency words and phrases such as the example in the image below, and have been taught root patterns of specific sounds*, those wonderful phonic skills that enable one to read doesn’t always directly translate to spelling.
*See root spelling video of the word ‘one’ here.
- What about older students who’ve not succeeded with phonics previously?
I view this from a pair of rather binary binoculars. If synthetic phonics works for so many in so many places and with so many contributing factors to their learning journey, I can’t subscribe to the notion that this method would work with the majority but not the remaining few. I’ve taught synthetic phonics for a number of years to students with a wealth of different learning needs, and not once has this approach been unsuitable. Considering what we know about the learning process, (e.g. that VAK is RIP) it seems counter intuitive to suggest that some suit this method and others don’t. The pace and dynamics of the group may change, but the key here is to ensure that older students are included in the conversation, with transparency around why this is not a ‘baby-ish’ concept and how vital it is for learning and life. Greg Ashman’s post, ‘Phonics is like a vaccine‘ articulates this point brilliantly.
- What about comprehension?
This aspect of the eternal phonics debate is widely and wildly misunderstood. Skeptics, haters and change-dodgers use this as an excuse to abandon synthetic phonics. In my experience, the practice of phonics does not directly improve understanding, except that it absolutely does.
1. Learn sounds
2. Decode whole words
3. Increase fluency to read whole sentences, passages, pages, chapters, books…etc.
4. Greater exposure to text – repeated exposure to new vocabulary
5. Increased comprehension. For me, this area is a non-argument. A parallel claim would be to argue that learning to walk does not improve dancing. Until you’ve put one foot in front of the other on repeated occasions in a number of different settings and on a number of different surfaces, moving at different speeds, there’s no way you’d be able to seduce with a steamy rumba or master the Macarena.
- How is it embedded?
Just as you wouldn’t take dancing lessons without a regular chance to dance, or attend football training sessions without frequent opportunities to play in a match, synthetic phonics won’t get you very far unless you have plenty of opportunities to read. And it’s both the interest level and the quality of text that really matters. Doug Lemov’s work on choosing rich texts full of challenge is comparable to none – see here. Early readers (at whatever age) will benefit from easily decodable books, moving onto simple chapter books and then increasing the difficulty level beyond that. Investing in the daily habit of reading will maximise the impact of synthetic phonics. Class readers, group reading sessions, parental engagement in reading at home and independent reading opportunities are crucial in cultivating enthusiastic readers.